The latter–still alive and well despite the arguments that have raged for nearly half a century over its possible demise–tends to favor associations of ideas, shifts in meaning, and resonances, without fearing a polysemy often judged reprehensible elsewhere, when measured by the yardstick of discursive thought; passion for texts and scripts, in a word, is focused around writing. In China one must never forget this preeminence of the sign, which is given such emphasis that the value of a subject–and the urgency to reproduce it to ensure its permanence–derives less from the frequency of its plastic representations than from its recurring presence in the texts.
The latter remain the supreme reference for all human activity and for all knowledge, and they stand at the source of all inspiration: historians are well aware of this fact, stressing to what a considerable extent–and no doubt more than was reasonable–Chinese critics constantly judged and categorized the arts in relation to the word and its written transposition. And if the best authors, the most cultivated men of the Empire, never ceased vaunting, at least from the eighth century onwards, the close ties between painting and poetry, the latter always took precedence over the former, and society more than once saw to it that the plastic artists were put in their place, a respected but always secondary one.
Take, for example, those artists of the Sung period (960-1279) who spent their time watching monkeys, birds, dogs, donkeys carrying charcoal-burners’ loads, and buffaloes working the paddy-fields: doubtless they were the best animal painters in the world, and remain so through the works of theirs that have come down to us. And yet at the same time, animals in their everyday aspect practically disappeared from poets’ themes and vocabulary, the only exception being a few birds to which writers attributed a precise symbolic meaning through the association of homophones and ancient literary allusions. This particular point–about animal painting, often unjustly forgotten–is a crude illustration of the overall place of the image in Chinese culture, a place as much out of sync in relation to the dominant discourse as in relation to real life; but then it was in reflecting on and for the image that the artists of the Empire were led to ponder the issue of the copy.
The compilers of technical and theoretical treatises occasionally tackled the question, on the whole rather briefly, stressing in clear terms or by paralipsis how little the copy worthy of the name (moxie) can, any more than the original, do without the “movement of life” (shengdong), and without the “breath”, “spirit” (qi), or without “spiritual resonance” (qiyun), a fundamental notion in any reflection on art but one that understandably makes translators quail when they attempt to translate it from Chinese into other languages.